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Franken details education views and defends net neutrality

Sen. Al Franken calls net neutrality “the First Amendment issue of our time.”

Sen. Al Franken attending Minnesota Farmfest in Redwood Falls earlier this month.
REUTERS/Craig Lassig

Continuing my policy-position interviews with the major party nominees for U.S. Senate…

In his pitch to become a U.S. senator, Republican nominee Mike McFadden often brings up his service on the board of a Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a Catholic school in downtown Minneapolis that has achieved impressive results getting underprivileged students of color into college or into the military.

When I asked him how his Cristo Rey experience would inform his views on education as a U.S. senator, he said that some of the things that have worked at Cristo Rey — a private, parochial school — could not be scaled up to work with the large population of hard-to-educate kids attending urban schools in America, but that he would try to leverage federal aid to education, specifically by making it easier for innovative charter schools to get funds that now go to failing public schools.

I asked Al Franken about that. He said that he was open to experiments with charter-school funding, noting that charter schools are still part of the public schools. “I think there’s a place for charter schools,” he said. “What I don’t want to see are vouchers” that would enable families to take public-education money and use it to enroll in private schools.

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But Franken was a lot more expansive on his general thoughts on education reform.

For starters, Franken favors putting more emphasis and funding in early childhood education. He said he was deeply influenced by the testimony of economist Art Rolnick (formerly of the Federal Reserve, now with the U of M’s Humphrey School). Rolnick argues — and Franken believes him — that each dollar spent on early childhood education saves the government from $7 to $16 later in the lives of the children who get that extra dollar of early investment.

People who have had a quality early childhood education are less likely to need special-education classes, less likely to be left back a grade, less likely to get pregnant before they get married and, on average have better health outcomes, get better jobs and are less likely to spend time in prison, Franken said.

(Of course, all of those outcomes either save the larger society money later — like money not spent incarcerating the person, not spent on high-cost special ed — or provide extra revenue to the government, like higher taxes by those with better jobs.)

Currently, Franken said, the United States ranks 26th among OECD nations (that’s the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) in the portion of 4-year-olds participating in pre-school.

Franken said he is also interested in expanding ways to involve parents in their kids’ education.

As for George W. Bush’s signature-education law, called No Child Left Behind, Franken wisecracked “the only thing I liked was the name.”

He said NCLB put too much focus on testing, and especially big standardized tests that are used to rate schools and teachers. His beloved fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Moline (who appeared in an ad for Franken in his 2008 campaign) would give a quiz in the morning and have the results by afternoon and would know how to adjust her teaching plan to help kids get what they weren’t getting.

But the NCLB tests, he said, are like “autopsies,” because by the time the results come out, it’s too late to help the kids learn. Those tests also provide a perverse incentive for teachers to “race to the middle.” The teacher and the school will be judged on how many kids pass the test. To the degree that a teacher accepts the NCLB incentive to maximize the number of kids who pass the test, the teacher may focus his or her attention on kids in the middle of the pack who are most likely hovering just above or below the passing score and devote less attention to the highest performing kids, who will pass anyway, and the lowest-performing kids, who may fail no matter what the teacher does.

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Net neutrality

The ground rules for this interview were that Franken would talk about his position on issues McFadden had already discussed, and then would have the option of raising one more issue. Franken chose net neutrality, the term for an Internet-regulation issue on which the Federal Communications Commission is considering making a change. Franken is strongly opposed to the change and wants to preserve the status quo.

The status quo, which Franken also refers to as “the open internet,” is basically this: Internet service providers (ISPs) are required to provide equal access to all content, regardless of the source, and all content “travels at the same speed,” Franken said.

In the past, the FCC has embraced this principle, Franken said, writing in 2010 that: “If broadband providers can profitably charge edge providers for prioritized access to end users, they will have an incentive to degrade or decrease the quality of the service to non-prioritized traffic.”

Under the leadership of  FCC Chair Tom Wheeler (an Obama appointee whom, Franken noted, used to be a lobbyist for the cable and wireless industries), the agency floated this idea of allowing “paid prioritization’ in which the purveyors of some content could pay ISP’s for the right to have their content move across the Internet in what Franken calls the “fast lane,” while less deep-pocketed content would move more slowly. Two of the three FCC commissioners have tentatively voted in favor of allowing this (which is called “paid prioritization”), but the rule change has been in a period of public comment before a final decision is made.

The breathtaking innovation that has characterized the early years of the Internet would be “stifled,” Franken said, if “large corporations are allowed to put their thumb on the scale” and have their content move in the fast lane.

As an example of how that might happen, Franken said that before YouTube, there was a similar but much less popular online video service owned by Google. A couple of guys developed YouTube over a pizzeria in California.

“Because of the open Internet, net neutrality, YouTube was allowed to travel at the same speed as Google Video and everyone preferred YouTube because it was better. And YouTube took over as the format people wanted to watch. And Google Video went away. And Google bought YouTube for $1.65B.”

But under the “paid prioritization” model, Franken implied, Google would have had the funds to pay for the fast lane, and the pizzeria guys would not, and customers would not have been as attracted to YouTube because they would have had to wait longer for the videos to load. The competition would have been unfair and the superior product would have languished.

Net neutrality, Franken said, is “the First Amendment issue of our time.” He also called it an “equality issue,” because of the advantages “paid prioritization” would bestow on those with deep pockets.

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When the news leaked that the FCC was considering dropping the net neutrality principle, “there was instant blowback … from lots and lots of Americans, including me,” Franken said. “I wrote a letter saying that the idea of paid prioritization was antithetical to net neutrality.”

The FCC has received more than 1.1 million comments, the second most in its history. (If you must know, the most comments ever was over Janet Jackson’s 2004 Super Bowl nipple slip.)

There are some bills in the Senate that seek to influence this decision, and Franken is a co-sponsor on two of them. But he said it would be very hard to try to revise the communications laws, and even if he could get something to happen in the Senate, it’s unlikely the House would agree.

So his main emphasis has been to raise public awareness and pressure the FCC not to go forward with the new rule. “I am leading on this,” he said. “I have been very vocal.”

Which explains why, when he was offered a chance to bring up one more issue of his own choosing, he chose net neutrality. If I get an opportunity, I will gladly allow McFadden to express his views on the issue.